Things are moving in the right direction for the Denver Broncos, especially after putting together one of our favorite draft classes. The offensive overhaul puts quarterback Drew Lock in a good situation, while the offensive and defensive lines look solid.
The big question will be at cornerback after Chris Harris Jr.'s departure, but head coach Vic Fangio has put together strong units with average talent in his zone-heavy scheme. That's exactly what the Broncos need if they're going to compete in the AFC West.
This season will be all about the development of Lock and his playmakers, combined with Fangio putting his stamp on the defense. And if it all comes together, the Broncos will surprise in 2020.
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Additions/players brought back:
S Justin Simmons (franchise tag)
DI Jurrell Casey (via trade)
CB A.J. Bouye (via trade)
G Graham Glasgow (signed for four years, $44 million, $25 million guaranteed)
RB Melvin Gordon (signed for two years, $16 million, $13.5 million guaranteed)
TE Nick Vannett (signed for two years)
Here's what I said about Drew Lock after the 2019 season:
After a preseason in which Lock looked out of sync in his first NFL action, it was good to see him much more comfortable once he was handed the reins down the stretch. It was a small sample size, but Lock threw the ball well up to 10 yards while doing a nice job of avoiding negatively graded throws. But even with the Broncos going 4-1 with Lock, he had some help. Altogether, 53.3% of his yards came after the catch, the seventh-highest rate in the league, and he graded last among signal-callers on 10-plus yard throws. Lock flashed the arm that made him a coveted prospect last draft season, but he still has plenty to prove. Most importantly, Lock's comfort level was much better than what he showed in the preseason — and he has a history of improvement, as he increased his PFF grade in all four years at Missouri.
It's far too early to definitively declare Lock as the future for the Broncos, even with his 4-1 record, but the offseason additions in Denver will give him every opportunity to succeed. The key areas to improve included that last-place ranking on 10-plus yard throws along with his movement in the pocket. He attacked downfield well in college, but the pocket presence was always a question mark coming out of Missouri. With speed, outside playmakers and viable middle-of-the-field weapons, Lock should have an opportunity to show off the zip and touch that put him in the first-round conversation before he landed in the second round in 2019. We'll know much more about Lock by the end of 2020.
Phillip Lindsay was an excellent find as an undrafted free agent and has ranked in the top 10 among rushers in each of the last two seasons. Over that period, the 190-pounder has earned a zone-rushing grade of 85.3, the third-best grade among backs in that span. He's also recorded zero fumbles across 416 attempts.
The Broncos also added Melvin Gordon III to the mix after a holdout and a disappointing season that resulted in a 66.0 grade and only 3.8 yards per carry. Surprisingly, Gordon has averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in four of his five years in the league, with his 2018 season sticking out as by far his best. That year, Gordon graded at 83.6 overall and even ranked second in the league in rushing grade, at 89.4.
Denver will have a top-five backfield if it gets the 2018 version of Gordon, but the rest of the former Charger's career projects him as a mid-level option.
The two are joined by Royce Freeman, who has graded in the 60s in his two years in the league, though he has earned a somewhat impressive 68.1 rushing grade. He hasn't quite developed into the every-down back he looked like early in his career at the University of Oregon. He's a fine complementary piece, albeit one who will struggle to find touches with Gordon in the mix.
The Broncos have overhauled their group of playmakers over the past few years, and they selected receivers with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft in Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. Jeudy is an outstanding route-runner who can line up outside or in the slot while winning with both speed and quickness. Jeudy was our top-ranked receiver in the draft and should make an immediate impact.
Hamler is another speed/quicks mismatch waiting to happen, though he must cut down on his 12.7% drop rate that ranked 90th out of 100 college receivers who have played significant NFL snaps since 2014. The Jeudy-Hamler combo is a perfect complement to Denver's No. 1 receiver, Courtland Sutton, who has excellent size, ball skills and after-the-catch ability. After a promising rookie year in 2018, Sutton broke out and posted an 80.5 receiving grade, good for 13th among receivers.
Sutton's size, combined with Jeudy and Hamler's ability to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally, gives the Broncos plenty to work with from a game plan standpoint. The No. 4 spot will be a battle between 6-foot-5 Tim Patrick, who had a solid 65.9 receiving grade on 30 targets last season, and third-year receiver DaeSean Hamilton, more of a possession option who has averaged 9.3 yards per reception in his career. If the two rookies develop quickly, the Broncos will have one of the best receiver groups in the NFL.
Just as the wide receiver corps has undergone a makeover over the last two years, Denver has become much more athletic at tight end, starting with 2019 first-rounder Noah Fant.
Fant showed off his big-play ability as a rookie, picking up 562 yards while averaging 14.1 yards per reception. He has his limitations — his ball skills need work, and his run blocking is a work in progress — but Fant's speed is an asset up the seam and underneath in space.
The backup role will be a battle between former Ohio State tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. Heuerman has a better track record as a run-blocker, which might give him the nod here, though keep an eye on fourth-round pick Albert Okwuegbunam out of Missouri. Albert O had a productive college career and ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, and that's attractive for a Broncos team that has done everything it can to load up on difficult-to-cover playmakers.
Denver has a solid tight end room, and it could be even better if Fant takes a step forward in his second season.
The Broncos were quietly solid up front last season, though things will look much different in 2020 with two starters moving on and right tackle Ja'Wuan James returning after playing only 63 snaps. It wasn't always pretty at left tackle, where Garett Bolles' 45 penalties are the most in the league over the last three years — he had his fifth-year option declined, giving him one more year in Denver before hitting free agency. While the penalties are an issue, Bolles has graded right around league average as a pass blocker, and he's a scheme-diverse run blocker. James returns to right tackle where his 75.0 overall grade ranks 35th among tackles since 2016. James is a dependable starter, though he has the fourth-highest cap hit on the team at $13 million —he's the fourth-highest-paid right tackle per year.
On the interior, left guard Dalton Risner had a promising rookie season that saw him rank 33rd among guards with a 64.5 overall grade as he transitioned smoothly from right tackle. The other guard spot will be manned by free agent Graham Glasgow, who is coming off a career-high 74.1 overall grade while playing both guard and center for the Detroit Lions. Glasgow is the No. 14-graded guard in the league since 2016, and he pairs with James to give Denver one of the most stable right sides in the league. The biggest question mark is at center, as Connor McGovern headed to the New York Jets after his career-high 72.0 overall grade that tied for ninth among centers last season. Third-round pick Lloyd Cushenberry III is projected to start and could be a solid addition to the run game, but his 55.8 pass-blocking grade last year at LSU is concerning.
Denver has viable options on four-fifths of the line — even with the question marks involved in starting a rookie center, they should rank near the middle of the pack once again in 2020.
The biggest question mark for Denver heading into the season is whether Von Miller's down year in 2019 was just a blip in a near-flawless career thus far, or whether it was the start of a decline that, at some point, is inevitable. Miller is now 31 years old and posted career-lows in sack total, overall grade and pass-rushing grade for a full-season of play.
His 79.3 grade marked the first time in his career he has graded below 90.0, and though he still notched 77 total pressures, his number of decisive pass-rush wins steeply declined, while his percentage of unblocked, cleanup and pursuit pressure spiked. Miller has been arguably the best pure edge rusher of his generation, and if he can't return to that form, it's a tough thing for Denver to replace.
Bradley Chubb's second season was derailed by injury, but he would need to significantly build on his rookie season to be able to pick up Miller's slack, as 13 sacks flattered his performance a little. Inside, Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell both graded well last season, and now Jurrell Casey, who has been one of the most consistently disruptive interior players over the past decade, joins them.
Casey isn't coming off his best year, but he still notched 40-plus pressures for the seventh consecutive season and had a 78.2 run-defense grade. He should be an extremely useful rotation player inside, contributing to an extremely solid starting group for Denver that has the potential to be much better if Chubb takes a step forward in Year 3 and Miller gets back on track after a down season.
The team's defensive line depth is less spectacular, but rookie third-round pick McTelvin Agim has intriguing potential to steal some playing time. His college tape is very inconsistent, but he was dominant during the showcase bowls.
One of the biggest surprises of the 2019 season was the emergence of Alexander Johnson, who finished with the top run-defense grade in the league (91.4) and the fourth-ranked overall grade (88.5). Johnson was a 28-year old rookie who battled legal issues and made the most of his first opportunity in the league.
Todd Davis, the starter alongside Johnson, is one of the most consistent linebackers in the league, grading between 65.0 and 71.0 in all six years of his career. Davis is another strong run defender who helped Broncos linebackers post an 88.4 grade against the run, by far the best mark in the league among teams last season.
Josey Jewell added to that, as well, with an 88.5 run-defense grade on 214 total snaps. He'll be the top backup once again, and the key for him will be improving in coverage, where he's struggled on 674 NFL snaps after playing well in that department in college. Denver drafted Justin Strnad in the fifth round out of Wake Forest, a productive college linebacker with multiple years of strong grades in coverage.
With Johnson's emergence and Davis' stability, the Broncos have one of the best linebacker units in the league.
With the offseason departure of Chris Harris Jr., the last remnants of the so-called No-Fly Zone have gone. Harris was one of the best cornerbacks in the league during his time in Denver, first as a slot corner then as a complete player who could line up at any cornerback position.
The Broncos' coaching staff will hope A.J. Bouye can go some way to replacing that. And if they could guarantee the best of him, they will have certainly made the right decision to trade for him. The problem is that we just didn't see the best of Bouye in 2019. The now-veteran corner was elite during his last season in Houston in 2016 and in his first season in Jacksonville as part of that fantastic defense that drove the team, but his play has slipped since then. Last season, he was beaten for a passer rating of 103.8 when targeted, the first time in his career that number has crossed the 100.0 barrier. He has come away with just two interceptions in the past two years after recording six the season before that, and his completion rate allowed jumped from under 50% to over 65% in each of the past two years. Bouye has a lot of talent, but the Broncos need him to rediscover it in a hurry.
Kareem Jackson is a versatile defensive back who can play pretty much anywhere in the secondary. He spent much of his time in the slot in 2019, but he will likely play at safety in 2020. The signing of Bryce Callahan, who played under Vic Fangio in Chicago, should take care of the slot corner role and allow Jackson to be a full-time safety. Callahan was one of the league's best slot corners during his time in Chicago but missed the entire 2019 season with a lingering injury that is now hopefully behind him.
The other cornerback spot will be a question mark, as youngsters like Davontae Harris and Isaac Yiadom battle to prove they can be better than they were in 2019. Each played more than 400 snaps last year, but neither could earn an overall PFF grade higher than 52.9 or allow fewer than 70% of passes thrown their way to be caught.
Meanwhile, Justin Simmons will play 2020 on the franchise tag after failing to agree with the team on a long-term deal. Simmons was an elite safety last season; he earned a coverage grade of 91.1, made 28 defensive stops and missed only four tackles.
DEVELOPMENT NEEDED: BRADLEY CHUBB
Chubb notched 13 sacks as a rookie, but his 72.7 pass-rush grade is still a better indicator of his performance that season. Last year, however, he graded at just 59.4 overall on only 233 snaps before injury struck, so there's plenty for Chubb to prove in Year 3.
At the time of the pick, we questioned whether Chubb would rush the passer efficiently enough to warrant the fifth overall selection, and that question remains. He's a solid all-around player and a better run defender than he's shown so far, but Chubb's value will come from posting 80.0-plus pass-rush grades and 65-plus pressure seasons. The Broncos simply need more high-end play from Chubb, especially with question marks surrounding Von Miller's down 2019.
DRAFT CLASS REVIEW
There was a clear strategy in the Broncos' draft room as they transformed their wide receiver room with Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, who add the kind of speed, route running and after-the-catch ability that opens up the playbook and keeps defensive coordinators up at night. The third round featured a trio of projects in CB Michael Ojemudia, C Lloyd Cushenberry and DI McTelvin Agim, while fourth-round tight end Albert Okuwuegbunam adds yet another playmaker to the offense. Keep an eye on sixth-round guard Netane Muti, too, as he's a mauling run-blocker who could become a steal if he can stay on the field. Overall, Denver finished with one of our favorite draft classes.
The Broncos head into the 2020 season with the second most difficult strength of schedule, so this could be part of the reason why their win total dropped from 8 to 7.5 this offseason.
The value has been bet out of their futures market, as our simulation falls right in line with market odds. However, this offense should have a new look in 2020, and our projected game flow sees an uptick in pass attempts for Drew Lock. So, if you're forced to make a bet on the Broncos, Drew Lock's over yardage total looks compelling, given our current fantasy projections.